No one wants to watch their child struggle. This is the greatest obstacle we Jewish educators of B’nai Mitzvah face, and we rarely – if ever – talk about it. The problem goes so wide and so deep, it blinds parents and educators alike to the original purposes of becoming a Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah. We do everything in our power, emotionally and even financially, to avoid it.
One of these main, original functions of coming of age in the Jewish community is absolving the parent of spiritual responsibility for the child, and placing said spiritual responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the 12 or 13 year-old. That’s the reason for the “Baruch shep’tarani” blessing a parent says upon the occasion of a child’s Bat- or Bar-Mitzvah. This means we have to put ourselves in an extremely difficult place, emotionally and spiritually. This means we have to teach our kids to:
- think critically about their own choices.
- struggle with parts of their heritage, their being, they disagree with; not merely ignore it.
- find trustworthy resources upon which they can rely for making decisions about their future.
- understand what an informed Jewish decision is.
- struggle with what it means to be a Jewish adult.
Because if we don’t teach them to struggle with themselves and with Judaism, they never will. The Jewish people need each of our students to be positively contributing Jewish adults, as do our own future generations, and struggling with it is integral to the development of a Jewish adult. Bat-/Bar-Mitzvah is the time that our tradition has set aside to begin that process. But too often, we actively allow our kids to avoid taking part in the very struggle that the Bar- and Bat-Mitzvah rite was designed for.
To illustrate how ingrained this avoidance problem is, I’ll address two major symptoms.
- At least two chief rabbis of Jewish communities (the Satmar Rebbe and the Gerrer Rebbe) have issued halachic decrees limiting the expense and extravagance that their communities are allowed for celebratory parties such as Bar Mitzvahs. Of course it’s important to mark the occasion of a Bat- or Bar-Mitzvah; no one’s trying to take that away. But the people who take issue with parties that cost more than some homes and luxury Italian cars tend to see the parties themselves as the problem. “Such extravagance distances us from the purpose of the celebration,” they might say. Or even, “One-upsmanship creates undue burden on the community.” But these chassidic rebbes – I really think they’re after something deeper. I think these rebbeim are trying to teach us a lesson about avoidance. The parties are just a symptom.
- And here’s another symptom: the way we teach our students to prepare for “the big day” marks an endpoint, when it should be a beginning. This is a HUGE topic, and I indeed expect another blogger or two to cover this, but as I said earlier, this is all JUST A SYMPTOM. Whether they’ve done their hours and hours of preparation or whether all they did was turn that critical 12 or 13, it’s all over in the morning. She or he’ll have one less thing on their plate for them to focus on “more important” things. I put “more important” in quotes not to imply sarcasm, but rather to emphasize that if Bar-/Bat-Mitzvah education is seen as a means to an end, then yeah, soccer and homework really are more important. But if Bat-/Bar-Mitzvah education is approached as preparation for a lifetime of what it means to be a responsible adult through a Jewish lens, then I really can’t think of anything more important.
The big parties and Torah readings are tools we use to avoid all this, because no one wants to watch their child struggle. Even when it’s for their child’s own benefit.
What will it take for us, as parents and educators of B’nai Mitzvah students, to be ready and willing to watch our kids struggle?